Payne: Polaris Slingshot, a 173-horsepower trike

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When I was a tot, I was a serious tricycle rider. I’d tear around the cul-de-sac, pedaling furiously, making growling engine sounds.

Not much has changed in 50 years. Except now I have the good sense to wear a helmet.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne bundles up for a ride on a rainy day. Like motorcycle riders, Slingshot owners will need waterproof clothing for sudden rain showers. Helmet advised as well.

This summer I tested the Polaris Slingshot three-wheeler — a 1,750-pound trike with the wheels in front that's powered by a 2.4-liter, 173-horse General Motors Ecotec engine (last seen in the 2012 Chevy Malibu) up front. It drives a carbon-fiber-belt-driven single rear wheel in back.

It’s wicked looking — like the Dark Knight got bored one night and decided to burn the midnight oil by bolting the Bat-Pod onto the Tumbler.

Paint it gray and lime-green (Lime Squeeze Polaris calls it), screw in two seats, and it’s a neighborhood kid-magnet. They lined up like it was a Cedar Point 'coaster. But everyone had to put on a helmet first. I’ve never driven a two-wheeler but the Slingshot is close.

The 7.5-inch “wind deflector” is an option on the base $19,999 Slingshot S (my tester was the loaded, $31,000 SLR LE), but the low screen is little protection from eating bugs on the freeway — much less any larger, errant objects that might come along (while in a sedan on Interstate 75 this spring, I narrowly avoided a ladder flying off a utility truck).

But the thrill of riding in the open air — your knuckles dragging just feet off the ground, an engine roaring in front of you —  is undeniable.

The kids strapped into the seat, secured their helmet and had a blast while holding on for dear life to the “oh crap” handle on Slingshot’s exposed aluminum frame. It’s like a stick-shift, rear-wheel drive Mazda Miata with a single rear wheel.

Wider than a Corvette ZR1 up front with a fat, 12-inch Kendra tire out back, the Polaris turns on a dime, the rear wheel slewing sideways under power. And with a power-to-weight ratio of 1:10 — same as a Ford Focus RS hot hatch — the car comes off a corner like, well, a slingshot.

Pop the clutch and tricycle burnouts are a blast — especially without having to worry about pulling a wheelie with the single tire out back.

“That was awesome!" screamed the kids.

Music to my ears. As makers of snowmobiles and ATVs, Polaris has been tickling adult’s inner 10-year-old for years. My top-trim model even came equipped with adjustable Bilstein shocks to tempt me out on the track.

But Polaris intends the Slingshot to be more than just a thrill ride — it’s an affordable, serious summer commuter not unlike the similarly priced Miata fun-box.

After laying some rubber up Woodward one morning, I stopped for lunch with a pal at one of my favorite eateries, Motorcity Burgers & Company (try the Z28 Burger with zip sauce, portabella mushrooms and mozzarella) across the street from the M1 Concourse car club. I tucked the helmet under my arm and strolled through the restaurant like a biker dude.

While inside, the skies opened for a good summer soaking. Polaris doesn’t sweat the rain — exposed surfaces are waterproof — and I wiped off my drenched seats when I returned. But what if it was still raining?

My biker friends tell me they’ve invested in waterproof jackets and pants, gloves, balaclava, the works. So after you put down $30,000 for your Slingshot, prepare to invest in a new wardrobe. Keep an extra set of dry clothes tucked in the glove compartment, too.

For $29,999, Polaris offers a Grand Touring LE model with a “Slingshade” — a sort of canopy with gull-wing roof over the passenger compartment (as if the standard Slingshot isn’t extroverted enough) that includes an enlarged, 9.5-inch windscreen. But without windows or doors, you’ll still get wet in a rainstorm.

I met my first Slingshot a few years back at an I-75 rest stop somewhere north of the Zilwaukee Bridge. Husband and wife were piloting their Sunset Red three-wheeler to a weekend Up North.

“It’s awesome!” they said, channeling their inner 10-year-old.

I can vouch for the travel experience. Mrs. Payne and I took an extended trip around the metro area one weekend and enjoyed the attention. Muscle-car guys would pull up next to us with a thumbs-up. Gals strolling on the sidewalk shouted “cool car!” and everyone was real nice about giving us space.

Which was nice because space is an issue when the only thing between you and a 5,500-pound Chevy Suburban is a steel-tube frame.

I’ve never been so paranoid lest a texting, left-lane-lollygagging SUV pilot fails to see me beneath their 8-foot-tall bow and punts me clean across the interstate median. I grew eyes in the back of my head.

Encased in our helmets, the engine roaring at the top of its lungs, Mrs. Payne and I nary exchanged a word save her occasional gesticulation which I interpreted as: “Look out for that Suburban turning into our lane!”

Beyond the bare-bones Slingshot S, the upper-trim options beginning with the $25,499 SL trim come standard with a 7.5-inch infotainment touchscreen and backup camera. The screen is optimized for operation with gloves on, but hearing the radio over 173 horses required turning the volume up so high that we became a mobile boom box.

Yet, when my wife and I stopped for groceries, we took our helmets off and beamed at each other. Like getting soaked on a whitewater raft trip, there is something exhilarating about being on a trike again instead of the usual grown-up quiet luxury of a modern sedan.

Yes, I said groceries. Two storage compartments — about the size of a hotel drawer turned on its end — are accessible by key behind the seats and under the forged-aluminum roll bars. It's enough space for a small grocery run, though I would warn against eggs if you enjoy three-wheel drifting through corners as I am tempted to do.

Since its launch in 2014, the Polaris has sold more than 25,000 Slingshots worldwide. Happily for Michiganians, our state is one of 44 to classify the Slingshot as an “autocycle” — meaning you can drive it with a standard driver’s license (the other states require a motorcycle license).

Order it online at https://slingshot.polaris.com/en-us or at eight Michigan retail stores that also carry Sea-Doos, ATVs and other adult toys for those of us who never grew up.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Polaris Slingshot

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger three-wheeler

Price: $19,999 base ($30,999 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter inline-4 cylinder

Power: 173 horsepower, 166 pound-feet torque 

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 1,750 pounds

Fuel economy: Observed under Payne's whip: 23 mpg

Report card

Highs: Your personal Batmobile; nimble handling

Lows: Exposed to the elements, semis, texting SUV drivers; slippery when wet

Overall: 4 stars